Roppokai Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu 4 DAN Howard Popkin* conducted a seminar Tuesday and Wednesday of last week in Boca Raton, Florida.
Originally Okamoto Seigo, founder and headmaster of the Roppokai, was to teach, but as he fell ill over the weekend, Howard and his partner, Joe Brogna (3 DAN), taught in his stead. As there were never more than 20 people on the mat over the two days, everyone had ample personal attention and opportunity to ask questions and take UKEMI from Howard and Joe. This is my fourth or fifth seminar with Howard, and he has been consistently excellent. With compelling technique, a concern for everyone's safety, clear explanations, a careful eye, and a very approachable demeanor, Howard has provided me some of the most rewarding time on the mat that I've experienced.
The structure of Roppokai classes differs somewhat from that of aikido which most of us are probably familiar with. Warm up is left to individuals, and class begins with Howard demonstrating technique. He does it first at normal speed, difficult to parse in my experience, and then repeats it more slowly making bigger motions and drawing attention to key points. Sometimes he has everyone line up to take the UKEMI, sometimes he just gestures vaguely for folks to attack. In any event, everyone on the mat gets to experience the technique as it should be executed before pairing off with less talented individuals who are still working out the mechanics. After that, class continues in line or in partners, with Howard and Joe circulating to offer corrections.
TECHNICAL SIMILARITIES TO/DIFFERENCES WITH AIKIDO
I have under 100 hours training in Roppokai DRAJJ, so the reader must register what follows as personal impression rather than any learned analysis. As always, caveat emptor.
Howard has warned us, and I'm discovering, that it will probably take years to undo aikido habits of movement, and the differences can be striking. In schematic, some things I've noticed:
large steps-small steps
throw UKE-drop UKE
watch NAGE's feet to understand WAZA- watch UKE's head to understand WAZA
elbows in-elbows out (then in)
full/some/no eye contact-intense eye contact
knees bent-knees straight
IRIMI goes to side-IRIMI goes straight in
fingers splayed-fingers together
A well-executed aikido technique makes you feel as if you've fallen into a vortex, and you may travel around for a while before being thrown. A Roppokai technique shudders your body, snaps your head back, and collapses you onto the floor. The feel is like grabbing onto a jackhammer.
With a typical Roppokai technique, UKE will approach with a two hand grab. NAGE's task is to anticipate the grasp and lead UKE ever so slightly off his balance forward, pop UKE's shoulder up with a wave motion beginning at his ankles and pulsing through his knees, hips, and arms (AIKI AGE, "AIKI rising), direct UKE's weight off his support with a short step-step into UKE, and drop him. It happens very quickly and took many iterations before I began to break down what happens in the technique. The subtlety is astounding.
For one demonstration, Howard held out a BOKKEN in SEIGAN and directed UKE to grab his right arm. With no discernable movement, he dropped UKE right in place. Having established the ideal of the technique, he then repeated it in broader circles so we could see what he had done. I had a chance to take this UKEMI--I was buckled right to the mat--it still astounds me.
Unfortunately, Roppokai technique looks entirely fake (and thus my mantra for all things MA: "I want to take the UKEMI.") Watching a Roppokai technique executed, you'll probably laugh. I did. (Still do sometimes, it's so fanciful.) You'll swear UKE is simply tanking for NAGE; choreographed complicity, rather than UKEMI. I had that uneasy sensation watching Okamoto on YouTube** before trying it. "Uneasy" because none other than Stanley Pranin*** had vouched for his ability, but it looked so obviously fake. If you're lucky, as I have been, you'll have an opportunity to train with a senior RDRAJJ player and feel the sensation for yourself. It removed my doubts. And Howard is wonderful this way. He has the ability to modulate his technique to demonstrate the principal and the feeling against an uncooperative UKE without tearing up joints--a definite possibility with these techniques.
While some AJJ posters on the various internet aikido forums have claimed that "aiki" is exclusively the provenance of AJJ, I have felt similar sensations training with aikido SHIHAN. What I haven't seen is high level aikido SHIHAN pass on these exquisite subtleties to their students. Not to slight the students here, but you just don't see the same power generated so effortlessly, so invisibly.
Howard says that Okamoto has been anything but coy in his teaching, happily showing how to do what he can do himself. Howard, too, is quite open in this way, and quite gifted as a teacher. A senior American aikido practitioner wrote of Howard to me: "I am absolutely convinced that this "steal the technique" idea is total bull****. Aiki is not "magic" but it can be magical. It is explainable and teachable. You should not have people training for 30 years and still have no clue. Howard is excellent and his teaching is organized and precise... none of this ‘steal the technique' b****... I intend to have a very long term relationship with him."
My sentiments exactly.
(I have to laugh here. I sent this link with my high praise to an aikido buddy who dismissed it out of hand: "Look at the shape he's in!" My unsent response, "Take the UKEMI, dummy." It relates, actually, to how Howard got into martial arts: "My father sat me down when I was 9 or 10 and says, ‘Howie, you're pudgy, short, and Jewish. You've GOT to do martial arts.'" Classic Howard.)